Refugee Week 2018: A chance to reflect on our young people’s achievements

By Alison Birch, After18 manager

As Refugee Week 2018 draws to a close I am reflecting on what has been a generally positive and at times moving week. It has been busy, even by After18 standards, and it is clear that the young people have achieved much.

To give a flavour of our work with unaccompanied children and young refugees I would like to share some of what we were doing during refugee week this year.

Refugee Week 2018 After18 Leicester

The week started on Sunday (17 June) with the refugee takeover of New Walk Museum. Our young people prepared eye-catching banners to be displayed at the entrance to the museum. We also exhibited some artwork made by some of the girls the previous week when we visited artist Ruth Schwiening’s studio.

Ruth came to the UK on the Kindertransport in 1939 and has a special bond with the young refugees. On this visit Ruth and her cousin Anita showed them a collage technique and encouraged them to express themselves. The results were both colourful and moving.

In the early part of the week I was preoccupied with the arrangements for some of our supplementary school students to sit their Arabic GCSE papers. They have worked hard to prepare so we hope the results will be what they deserve.

Mid-week, while our project assistant Rem was busy preparing the summer activity programme, I was invited to attend the Leicestershire Law Society summer garden party. This year After18 has been selected as one of the supported charities and we look forward to working with President Bushra Ali over the coming year.

I was also at the same time invited to the launch of SUSPENDED in Leicester Cathedral. This is an art installation inside the cathedral made from the belongings of refugees taken by the artist from the shores of the Mediterranean. It’s certainly an opportunity for reflection.

Refugee Week 2018 After18 LeicesterOn Thursday we had the first of our summer trips. A group was taken for a barbecue alongside the River Wreake, followed by the opportunity to potter about in homemade canoes and climb trees. It was a lovely chilled-out day, a chance to relax and play with friends, with wonders to discover along the riverbank. I learned from one of our young people that encountering a snail for the first time can be a magical experience.

On returning I attended the Regent College Awards Ceremony. A year or so ago, as part of our supplementary school, I supported a number of young people to think about their options for education and in some cases apply for Regent College. So, I was delighted to be invited as the guest of a couple of young people and to sit at a table of After18 service users as they won awards such as Outstanding Achievement and Student of the Year. It was lovely to see all the hard work and commitment throughout the year being recognised.

As usual the casework continued throughout the week. For the past few months I have been supporting some young people who have been given a “no study condition” by the Home Office. This week after quite a bit of advocacy this was finally removed for one student who is now very relieved to be allowed to sit her final exams to gain her qualification.

Refugee Week 2018 After18 LeicesterFriday night was party night. Our girls’ group is tailored to the needs of the young people and well established. Over time, with support, the group members have become more confident and empowered. They worked together to organise their Eid celebration, which was joyous, with some highly choreographed dancing, music and games. There were so many thoughtful gifts and encouraging messages for them from our kind supporters that the girls were whooping with delight at receiving them.Refugee Week 2018 After18 Leicester

After18 strives to support young people to pursue their interests and assists with access to sports clubs. At the end of the week several young people were competing in sporting events, including the Refugee World Cup at Fulham FC which the Leicester under 19 team won… for a second time! Another excellent achievement to celebrate this Refugee Week.

Looking back at Sanctuary Radio

In the summer of 2016, After18 ran a project in which groups of young people programmed and presented their own pop-up internet radio station, Sanctuary Radio.

It was an opportunity for refugees living in Leicester to share diverse arts, music, culture and spoken-word from across the globe, reflecting the international origins of those taking part.

The station ran from August to September. Some of the highlights have been archived online and we have added a link to one of the programmes below.

[mixcloud width=100% height=120 hide_cover=1 light=1]

Sanctuary Radio was produced in collaboration with TwoStory and The Journeys Festival (an ArtReach event) and supported by funding from Arts Council England.

2016 After18 Christmas card design – Freedom

After18 Christmas card 2016 Freedom

Freedom: After18’s Christmas card design for 2016

Our 2016 Christmas card is now ready. As always, our card is inspired by the young people’s perspective of the world.

This we saw an increase in the numbers of Kurdish young people attending our activities and it was this group which inspired this year’s card.

During the year we had a weekly art session provided by Charnwood Arts, as well as occasional visits to explore the exhibitions at the Attenborough Arts Centre.

This gave the young people an opportunity to try different art techniques and be creative in a safe space.

The card is inspired by the spontaneous drawings the young people made. Incorporating recurring themes of mountains (for their homeland), tents in the Jungle refugee camp (from their experience of Calais) and caged birds hoping for freedom.

Cards cost £3.85 (plus p&p if outside Leicester) for a pack of six. Please contact us by email via our contact page and we will send you details of how to buy them.

After18 refugee drawing

A young person’s drawing of a caged bird that wishes to fly free

Refugee's drawings evoke their homeland as well as the Calais 'Jungle'

Refugee’s drawings evoke their homeland as well as the Calais Jungle camp

After18 art

Young people at one of our regular art sessions

2015 Christmas card design – We Are All in One World

After18 Christmas card 2015 sample

We Are All in One World: After18’s Christmas card design for 2015

As the year draws to a close we are again challenged to develop a unique design for our Christmas card which reflects the young people’s perspective of the world.

This year our card is a digital manipulation of a photo which was taken on one of our summer trips. The young people encountered an image of the Earth from space and were fascinated by it. They spent a long time interacting with it and experimenting with different poses.

We have seen this theme occur many times in their spontaneous art work since alongside the slogan ‘We are all in one world’.

The image has a particular resonance for young people who have travelled across the world looking for peace.

Cards cost £3.85 (plus p&p if outside Leicester) for a pack of six. Please contact us by email via our contact page and we will send you details of how to buy them.

After18 summer trip

Summer trip inspiration


The image has appeared repeatedly in young people’s drawings

Over Under Sideways Down

Over Under Sideways Down Red Cross Refugee Week comic strip

The account of a refugee fleeing conflict is told in comic strip form. ©Karrie Fransman/British Red Cross

A Red Cross publication is being used to help new After18 volunteers understand the issues young asylum seekers face when coming to the UK. Over Under Sideways Down, by graphic novelist Karrie Fransman, tells the story of Ebrahim, a young Kurdish teenager who is forced to flee his family home in Iran.

Prior to reading Over Under Sideways Down I was aware of the arduous journey that asylum seekers undertake in order to get into the UK from the large amount of stories that appear on the television news and in the press. However, after reading the comic it became apparent that this mainstream media coverage often lacks a detailed account of the journey itself or of the savage abuse that young people frequently experience along the way.

In the graphic novel, Ebrahim tells us that the ‘agents’ (the criminals who profit from smuggling people out of Iran) made the refugees walk all night long in silence, beating those who could not keep up. He tells us that the health of the asylum seekers is put further into jeopardy when they are deprived of water and, once inside the lorries, they are forced to take tablets which prevent them from being able to urinate.

Other important issues that are explored in Over Under Sideways Down include the gruelling interview process Ebrahim faces once he has arrived in the UK, his stay at a hostel and the long bureaucratic process for asylum. Reading the comic-strip I also learnt that the task of proving an individual’s age is made extremely difficult as the agents take the refugees’ official papers.

Over Under Sideways Down Red Cross

Over Under Sideways Down was published by the Red Cross for Refugee Week in 2014. ©Karrie Fransman/British Red Cross

Ebrahim’s distressing account brings home the ordeal that many asylum seekers have faced. An awareness of ill-treatment helps us understand why a young person may be quite withdrawn and find it difficult to trust people they have just encountered. This knowledge reminds us as volunteers to approach young people with sensitivity, especially when dealing with issues surrounding family, their journey to the UK and the application process. We need to be mindful that the people we are speaking to have very often been treated with suspicion and disbelieved.

Some of the volunteers from After18 gave us their opinion of Over Under Sideways Down:

“I learnt that the struggle doesn’t end when you arrive in the country that you’re seeking asylum in. It emphasises how difficult the situation is for the people who are seeking asylum.”

“Yes, it affected me emotionally. The comic emphasises heavy concepts such as violence and rape. It’s almost as though it’s more hard hitting because it is a cartoon. I was quite emotional. “It puts into perspective a journey of them wanting to feel safe… looking for survival.”

“The presentation of the story in graphical form makes it immediate and accessible to many readers and complements the text. The artwork is simple but effective and its sparing use of colour reflects the often bleak emotions and events.”

By giving a genuine first-hand account of a young person’s experience, Over Under Sideways Down gives a terrific insight, making it a great learning tool for volunteers who are new to working with young people seeking asylum.

By James Black

Link: Read Over Under Sideways Down at

Mazloom – audience reactions to the play

Mazloom play at Leicester Embrace Arts in association with After18, photo by Ambrose Musiyiwa

photo by Ambrose Musiyiwa

In summer 2013 After18 hosted a theatre production of Mazloom on the Leicester leg of a national tour. Mazloom is a portrait of Asef, a young Afghan who in the claustrophobic environment of his London flat recalls the dangerous journey he made to the UK alone and his fears for his impending deportation back to Afghanistan.

This closely reflects the life of many of After18’s young people, some of whom were in the audience. So, what did they make of the play and their first experience of live theatre?

“It was interesting, I was thinking he is acting, he is not Afghan but he was doing everything like Afghani, how we feel. I really liked it, what he said was right. It’s nice to show the people how we are, if they don’t know any Afghani they know now how we are coming and feeling. He is acting he doesn’t want to go back. Even myself I don’t want to go back. I feel like I was born here, I’ve been here a long time, my mind has changed now and it’s too difficult to live in Afghanistan. So many boys was here, how many now left? I worry who is deport. If they don’t have any family in Afghanistan and they send from England how will they feel? it’s dangerous for them. If we can invite them [the play] again, everyone will come, other Afghans will want to see.”

mazloom-leicesterAnd there were also comments from other members of the audience that show the impact of the play on their understanding.

“As the young man banged on the walls of his room the isolation of his journey was brought home. Beyond the statistics and political rhetoric, asylum seekers are frightened and traumatised young people seeking help.”

“It was a real eye opener, I had no idea we send them back as soon as they are adult.”

We would like to thank the Mazloom Production for including Leicester in the tour and Embrace Arts for supporting it. More information about the play can be found at the official Mazloom website.

Pride and Romance – painting life-sized figures in our art sessions

3figures combinedTwo weeks into our block of art sessions and the young people have settled into a routine, word of mouth has spread and numbers have swelled. We have moved on from clay sculpture to creating three life-sized figures, painted to represent themselves as they would like to be in the future, “if dreams came true”. The face would later be removed so they can stand behind it and add their own face through the hole.

Two of the young people who had not really engaged in the clay work (preferring to watch or spend the time texting) really took to this idea, although in very contrasting styles.

After18 life-sized figure paintingOne young person who seemingly had never held a paintbrush before, was content to slap as much paint on as quickly as and nonchalantly as possible. At the end, however, after a bit of help with the background he was visibly impressed by what he had achieved with his footballer portrait. He painted his name with flourish across the top.

The other young person has spent many hours carefully and intricately painting a “James Bond” style figure in a suit with fine brushes. He decided to set this very western looking gentleman against the backdrop of  his home in the Afghan mountains.

After18 art workshopBoth young people were keen to know where the work would be displayed and were at pains to say that it had to go somewhere a lot of people would see it but that it should be carefully supervised so it wouldn’t get damaged.

The third figure, a man in an Afghan party outfit was a group effort with people taking turns to paint while a group sat around, tea in hand, shouting out instructions and generally enjoying commenting on each other’s efforts. It was decided that this figure was to be placed on a beach, maybe suggesting opportunities for relaxation and fun outside of Afghanistan.

After18 art workshopWhen they weren’t involved in creating the life-sized painting, crayons and pencils were made available to them. The result was a collection of drawings of Afghan flags (minus the “tricky bit in the middle”) plus romantic pictures of flowers, apples and lost loves – although surprisingly for a group of young Afghans there were no poems this time.

As the sessions continue, in a few weeks we will soon be thinking about preparing the young people to adjust to them no longer being part of their routine – fielding questions of “why are we stopping?” – and preparing to exhibit the work.

Snakes and Sculptures – our summer art activities for young people

After18 summer 2013 art activityWhen our young people were recently interviewed for some research on their adjustment to life in the UK, one of the things they mentioned was the difference in clothing between the UK and Afghanistan. From the bewilderment of seeing women in the street with their heads uncovered for the first time to discovering what styles of western clothes they like, there is a lot to learn.

With that in mind we decided to make their relationship with clothes the focus of After18’s summer 2013 ‘drop in’ style art activities.

Our first challenge was to assemble the young people in an unfamiliar room to try something new. Despite having enjoyed previous artwork sessions and having expressed interest in coming, something new and outside the scope of their usual routine is something they approach casually.

After18 summer 2013 art activityAfter some persuasion, young people ‘chillin’ in the vicinity were enticed in by the promise of Afghan green tea and biscuits.

Despite an initial chorus of “I can’t do that,” the Afghan green tea was mostly left to go cold as they became engrossed  in modelling clay figures of themselves.

Usually our contact with the young people is prompted by some crisis (letters not understood or money not received) and consists of a flurry of explanations, phone calls and problem solving. So for the After18 staff this was also a quality experience, to be able to sit and chat to the young people about themselves as we modelled side by side. We learned many things.

After18 summer 2013 art activity For example we were thrilled to discover that one of the young men used to train snakes “to go up and down” for a snake charmer. We received instructions from the group on what to do in the event of being chased by a snake on a mountain and had to field questions about the level of danger posed  by snakes in the UK.

After18 summer 2013 art activity

“In England I am small person”

The most striking aspect of the finished models though was their size. While some models showed strength and hope for the future, several models depicted the young person feeling small.

The sculptures or images of the sculptures will be on display periodically around Leicester, keep an eye on our Events page and Twitter feed for details.